Hillary Clinton mends fences in Central Europe and the Caucasus

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

SECRETARY OF STATE Hillary Rodham Clinton spent the holiday weekend on what might be described as a makeup tour. In Central Europe and in the Caucasus, she visited countries that the Obama administration has been accused of ignoring or undervaluing as it has sought to "reset" relations with Russia. Along the way, she delivered a speech on a cause -- democracy promotion -- that the administration, and Ms. Clinton herself, have also appeared to play down.

Though not a substitute for a consistent policy, this diplomacy of reassurance was useful. In Tbilisi, the secretary of state stood alongside Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili -- a favorite of the Bush administration who has yet to get a meeting with President Obama -- and affirmed, "We are Georgia's partner. We are Georgia's supporter in both word and deed." She added that the administration had made clear to Russia that it opposes the continuing occupation of Georgian territories and rejects Moscow's claim of a sphere of influence in former Soviet republics such as Georgia.

In Poland, where the Obama administration created a stir last year by abruptly canceling a missile defense accord, Ms. Clinton signed an amended agreement with Defense Minister Radek Sikorski, who said that his government "liked the new configuration better" -- a statement that should undercut continuing Republican criticism of the shift. In Ukraine she expressed continued support for a "strategic partnership" with the newly elected government, despite its tilt toward the Kremlin.

In her address to a meeting of the Community of Democracies in Krakow, Poland, Ms. Clinton rightly described civil society as a crucial component of "a free nation" and called attention to a "crisis": "Governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit." She cited examples of repression in countries such as Cuba, Egypt and China, and she proposed modest but potentially helpful responses, including a new fund "to support the work of embattled NGOs [non-governmental organizations]."

To her credit, Ms. Clinton followed up on her words when she visited Azerbaijan, a strategically important energy producer with an autocratic government, meeting with civil society activists and publicly raising the cases of two imprisoned bloggers. Yet when she was asked at a news conference about the country's human rights record, she offered the regime of Ilham Aliyev an undeserved endorsement, saying that "we believe there has been a tremendous amount of progress in Azerbaijan."

As an Azeri journalist was quick to remind her, the assessment of human rights groups is just the opposite. The slip was perhaps understandable; Ms. Clinton was there, after all, to stroke a friendly regime. But such reassurance, however justified, should not be delivered at the expense of honesty.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company